I had never even heard of this novel by Maja Lunde until my book club voted to read it last year, but I’m so glad they did because I think it’s one of the best books I read in 2017.
It’s about the extinction of bees and it follows three characters: William in England in the 1850s, George in the U.S. in 2007, and Tao in China at the end of the 21st century when society has all but collapsed as a result of the bees’ extinction.
William was a biologist until he got married and had kids and spent his days running a seed shop in order to provide for them. His mentor (whom William idolizes) is disappointed in him for starting a family and thereby allowing himself to get distracted from his scientific research. William spends a long time in bed with depression, leaving his family to fend for themselves in poverty, until one day when his son comes in, picks up one of his books, and unwittingly prompts William to get out of bed and get back to work – on his research, not making money. That’s still a problem, so William is eventually forced to go back to work and pursue his passion on the side like the rest of us.
William designs what he thinks is a revolutionary beehive that will make beekeeping much easier – only to find out it’s already been invented.
His daughter, Charlotte (my favorite character), helps him redesign it, only to find out it’s still too close to another design by a beekeeper in America.
George is a middle-aged beekeeper who has hung all his hopes for the farm on his son, who is currently studying writing and has absolutely no interest in farming or beekeeping. George is also very judgmental and controlling and spends more time whining about why his son doesn’t understand him than he does trying to understand his son. It’s only when George’s bees start mysteriously dying that his son does commit himself to helping his dad run the farm, but by that time it’s too late.
Tao is forced to spend every minute of daylight up in the trees pollinating each individual flower by hand, because without the bees to do it, all the plants will die off if they don’t pollinate them themselves. She and her husband have a three-year-old son, Wei-Wen, and they almost have enough money saved for a second child before they get too old to have children. Then Wei-Wen gets stung by a bee when they’re out on a family picnic. He has an allergic reaction and dies because no one knows how to deal with bee stings anymore.
A lot of the people in my book club took issue with all of these characters, but I think my only real complaint about the book was the way it told us what happened between 2007 and 2098. We’re given that information through Tao’s studies in an all-but-abandoned library and I just think there has to have been a more exciting way to give us that information. I could have done without William’s story entirely and replaced it with George’s son or grandchild struggling with the bees’ extinction and its ramifications.
I will say this for the book: I will never look at a bee the same way again.
What did you read this week? Any other book club picks you never would have chosen on your own?